A selection of comments and reviews: of my work by others and of others' work by me
MA Fine Art Degree Show, Winchester School of Art, September 2011
A review by Dr Stephen Riley

First published September 2011 in AN Magazine online, see

I would not be the first to start a review of a degree show – in this case an MA show – with a few cautionary comments. There are lots of people in degree shows – eighteen in this – and doing them all justice would probably require a small book, but since this is a magazine review, much of what follows is necessarily brief and more descriptive than analytical. Moreover, since this is the work of young artists, or at least newly emerging ones, seeking success in a very difficult and crowded area, one would instinctively wish to focus on the positive. On the other hand, a Masters Degree implies a high level of achievement and this suggests that one should approach the work with rigour and high expectations; that one should seek mastery of the medium and masterful understanding of the conceptual implications of the work.

The show is in two parts: a foyer/gallery space proper and a series of studio spaces adapted for the purpose. Taking the latter first: passing down a narrow corridor, you see a small rack containing compliments slips; in an Acconci-esque provocation, Michel Ayoub announces that he has only done this in order to ‘have more women’. In the same corridor plays a whispered soundtrack making references to connection and disconnection. Similar words are set out in strips of Dymo-tape on the walls beneath photocopied images of plain torn paper and of faces distorted by folding and overlaying. This is the work of Maria Luisa Vélez – more on her shortly. Further along the corridor, Michel Ayoub occurs again, first raging against a pop record played to death in his home land, and then in a video of a mock terrorist pronouncement in which worms claim responsibility for various recent natural disasters and quibble about the suitability of women for giving birth.

In a side room are large paintings on paper. The works of Mihyun Anne Kim, they are wistful contemplations of nature – bushes and trees – seen through cool institutional window bars, and hard not to interpret as an expression of the anxiety-expressed-as-ennui of a displaced young person endeavouring to come to terms with an alien culture. Perhaps affirming this view, the body of work is entitled ‘Hope’. In the adjacent space is the work of Menglu Pan, a cluster of small frames, each containing a sketch of a single eye, each drawn in a different style. The work is called ‘Conversation’, suggesting that the eyes are engaged in some form of silent communication. Next is another cluster of small frames hung on strings, Messager-style, containing snapshots of architectural details from a Far-Eastern town. The title of the work, which is by Lea Peng Lian, proclaims, perhaps hopefully, that ‘This is not about pretty pictures’. Opposite and by the same artist is a series of pages from books cut to form a regular pattern. They are delicate and enigmatic. They could be, at once, Chinese lanterns, models for multi-storey cark parks, part-formed paper decorations, ready to be cut into strips and hung, or commentary on the book they have defaced.

In another room is a two-part video by Lisa Brown called ‘Articulation of Emotion’. One screen shows children playing innocently; the other shows a rag doll being violently abused by an unseen assailant. Further work by the same artist in another room explores similar themes: dotted around are objects that contain the means both to soothe and inflict pain. Adjacent is Eve Dawson’s ‘Spatiotemporal’, a room-sized installation of wire, wood and wallpaper, which references Stockholder and possibly Cady Noland and Jason Rhoades. Through thoughtful relationships between colours, textures and shapes, the work breaks up, re-articulates and redefines the space.

Ivy Chi’s series of painterly self-portraits has overtones of the work of English painter Chantal Joffe, the images capturing a succession of selves, invented and represented through colours, moods and artefacts. Nearby, Ju Tianyang also brings two cultures together: ‘Roads’ articulates a journey. Chinese-style script quotes English street names. This is set on scrolls – the traditional Oriental means of describing a journey – but the scrolls are on canvas – the longstanding Western painting surface of choice.

In a large space – the college’s sculpture studio – you encounter first an airborne array of clothes, assembled as though being worn: skirts follow blouses, jeans follow shirts. All are dyed in the same sky blue. The work of Chun Yu (Daniel) Yang, it has overtones of the carousel death ritual in Logan’s Run or the comedic cruelties of a Beckett play; it is as though the sky has become one with a giant spin dryer in which empty shells of people fly around pointlessly in circles.

On the floor and walls are the vestiges of a faux ritual. Charlotte Brett’s piece, ‘Death Line’ uses canvas, burnt gunpowder, enigmatic symbols and a strangely comic half-formed bird to give the sense of a ceremony, which seems to have been intended to bring back to life some kind of phoenix variant, but has failed or been stopped half-way.

Nina Pancheva-Kirkova’s series of paintings called ‘Utopia’ are an ironic comment on this failed modernist project. They depict post-apocalyptic landscapes with, here and there, hints of what might have been. A shape that might be Tatlin’s Tower or the vestiges of a helter-skelter after a bomb attack appears in the smoky foreground of one and typifies the mood of the set.

You approach Sarah Misselbrook’s piece ‘Conformation’ via a line of what might be cherub wings, which lead into a nightmare classroom of distended and smashed desks. As the title indicates, this work, like one of those dreams in which you get your own back, rails against the oppressiveness of a catholic education. Nearby, the same artist has a video, viewed furtively through key-holes, in which a character tortuously assembles communion wafers into the letters of a cry for help.

The culture-clash theme referred to in some of the above recurs in the work of Md Ridhwan Hj Md Ruslan. A stark chip-board corridor simulates the alienation induced by its equivalent in his UK student home. Meanwhile, ‘Westminster Bridge’, a series of looped videos shot on a rainy London day, takes the fleeting reflections of passing strangers on wet flagstones and flips them upright, converting them into shimmering chimeras.

A video by Maria Luisa Vélez extends her ‘Disconnected’ theme. This time, faces are projected into receding flaps of paper, creating a more satisfactory exposition of the themes of fragmentation and disconnection mooted in her corridor pieces. Similarly, Eunah Byeon, represented elsewhere by abstract paintings of the same name, has an installation called ‘The images of my mind’. Whether or not the works meet the ambitions of the title is subjective. However, the installation – watery images projected onto a deep wall of vertical, dangling red ribbons which then roll around uncontrolled on the floor like the disembowelled contents of a giant tape cassette – has a soothing, flickering red-orange glow and, perhaps, a womb-like quality.

Additional works by artists in the studios are also to be found across the road in the airy gallery/foyer space, but you also see works by others. ‘Manifesto I’ and ‘Manifesto II’ by Maryam Alaku seem informed by a sense of futility. ‘Manifesto I’ is a grid of photos of a black person’s mouth, each with a series of unreadable words written over it. ‘Manifesto II’ is a video in which words rush past too fast and distorted to be seen and are spoken too fast and distorted to be heard. Modern art history is of course littered with doomed manifestos, but ‘manifest’, without the ‘o’, is also the word for a ship’s inventory. Given the artist’s African origin, the slave trade comes to mind; a thought supported by the near presence of a further piece by the same artist, made up of threatening black chains and weights.

Jun Qin’s drawings combine overtones of modernist rationality with intuitive creativity. Graph-paper technical drawings - themselves long made obsolete by CAD drafting programmes – seem to be the outcomes of Lewitt-esque concepts, but these are overruled by a set of unprogrammed decisions, creating a kind of rigid, contradictory expressionism.

Maryam Koleini’s ‘When Samothrace Told Me the Story of My Birth’ is a substantial number of small drawings which explores, mixes and remixes a set of leitmotifs. Comprising Leonardo anatomical studies and various references to classical antiquity it gives the sense of someone obsessively and anxiously exploring how broad and ancient cultural mythologies might be assimilated into a contemporary personal one.


Show and Tell and Landscape and Industry
St Peters Hall and The Lighthouse, Bournemouth and Poole
15 April 2011 to 10 September 2011

Reviewed by: Stephen Riley
First published July 2011 in AN Magazine 'Interface':

Bournemouth and Poole are separate and separately administered towns. However, on most practical terms they form one large conurbation. One set of suburbs runs straight into the other with no noticeable gap. I was easily able to fit in trips to both of these shows in a couple of hours on one Saturday afternoon.

To put things in context, Bournemouth-Poole is large enough to have takers for a broad spread of cultural outputs. However, what galleries there are in the area are mostly upmarket art chain-stores or local outlets that try to emulate their style, and what you see here is what you see in every English town that has a sufficiently large, sufficiently wealthy middle class to sustain it: sunsets, safaris, boxing hares, elongated dancers, whimsical cows, idealised Parisian streets and Venetian canals, pseudo-Lowrys and Wallises, Time Square, Ayres Rock, rolling Tuscan landscapes, street urchins and endless bloody sailing boats. Lifestyle art, available in ‘original oils’ or factory-made prints. You can imagine heated debate raging at a Sandbanks dinner party over whether Rolf Harris or Jack Vettriano is the world’s greatest contemporary artist.

Meanwhile, the work of contemporary artists trying to make something thoughtful, exploratory and original is all but invisible. In an earlier review – that on Chris Fraser’s solo show at The Artworks in Poole, back in April – I reported the artist’s dismay at the almost total lack of visitors to his exhibition. The fact that Artworks’ next event was a group show called ‘What IS the Point?’ seemed to sum up a broader sense of despair felt by the whole collective at putting on a show that would be ignored by everyone except other artists.

Against this backcloth, I think readers will understand that the overwhelming emotion I felt on arriving at these two shows was relief. At last, here was something both visible (give or take a bit of persistence - see below) and non-corporate.

Show and Tell was trumpeted as a ‘pop-up shop’ rather than (or as well as) an art exhibition. It took place in a one-time church meeting hall better known for many years to locals as ‘Crank’ nightclub. The club closed down some time ago leaving the place empty and redundant, and Show and Tell’s organisers were able to persuade a helpful landlord to let them open the building for a 3-day period for this event. The chief obstacle was the council: they wanted business rates for every moment Show and Tell was there. The fee overall would have been £34,000. That required just for the time needed to sweep up and get the place ready was set to be £5,000. They were eventually talked out of it, but it’s not hard to see why, when faced with taxes based on imagined rather than actual income, it is almost impossible for any but the most commercial of arts outlets to flourish. I began to see both why the non-corporate arts are almost invisible here and why High Streets are becoming corporate where there’s money and dead zones where there isn’t.

The show itself seemed to be populated mostly with work by recent and quite-some-time-ago graduates from the local art school, and those who had come to Bournemouth from elsewhere because, well, it’s Bournemouth. There was work by illustrators, photographers and graphic designers, as well as fine artists. Musicians played, there were sculptures and artists’ books, and the crafts were represented in the form of handmade cards, clothes and jewellery. The gorgeous whiff of handmade soap wafted up from a corner trestle-table. The place was a breath of fresh air in more ways than one. Readers from London and other enlightened places will be wondering what all the fuss is about, but this is almost unique here.

I drove across town: to the Lighthouse. The Lighthouse is a full-on arts centre. It shows art-house movies, has a theatre and is home to Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. However, it is rather tentative where the visual arts are concerned. ‘Landscape and Industry’ was on the second floor. I struggled to find it and then couldn’t get to it because the door was locked. The lady manning the box office had to consult Lighthouse’s website before she would believe me that the show even existed. Once convinced, she asked someone in the back office to unlock the exhibition space for me. I followed him upstairs. He never spoke and I only ever saw his back. Even when he had let us in, he made his way across the room without turning and left by another door.

The work comprised photographs by a group of local people who call themselves ‘The Happy Snappers’, led for the purposes of this project by arts professional, Joe Stevens, aided by photographer Paul Russell. This was a spin-off of a larger project by the same team which analysed via vox-pop and pics-pop the experience of working life in Poole in the period from the 1950s to date.

The Snappers – all amateurs and mostly retirees – had evidently taken Berndt and Hiller Becher’s method as their model. The assorted, multi-coloured stores along the High Streets of Poole’s suburbs were shot one at a time, deadpan. The snaps were first laid end-to-end and then stacked on top of each other to make a grid. True to their name, the photographers had cheerfully made their way along each road, making unpretentious snap-shots as they went. You wouldn’t really expect the profound observation and refinement of a set of Becher photographs. Nevertheless, there was something compelling about the patterns that had formed as the images had been fixed together in one large, co-operative work. Moreover, like the Bechers’ South Wales pithead photographs, these soon may well become a record of things made obsolete by economic change.

Work by The Snappers’ mentors, Stevens and Russell, was also on show nearby. They had tackled similar themes: the use and aesthetics of the street. Interestingly, although it was clear to me which was the work of the pros, there were no labels; there was no hierarchy.

Ultimately, what is so vital about both of these shows is that they exist at all. That was what gave me that sense of relief. I wanted to punch the air and shout ‘at last!’: at last, something bottom up, not top down. Something from and by the people. Please let this be just the start.


The Recipe Exchange and Making is Connecting
Spacex Gallery, Exeter
14 May - 19 July 2011

Reviewed by: Stephen Riley
first published June 2011 in AN Magazine online:

The Recipe Exchange and Making is Connecting at Spacex Gallery, Exeter

A Review by Dr Stephen Riley, June 2011

For those unfamiliar, Spacex Gallery is the leading contemporary art space in Exeter. The Recipe Exchange is an outreach project commissioned by Spacex and created by artist Helen Pritchard; and Making is Connecting is a book by academic David Gauntlett. The Recipe Exchange was represented in the gallery by outcomes of the project, and Making is Connecting by a talk given by the author. Given that Pritchard is a PhD research student at Lancaster University and Gauntlett is a Professor of Media and Communication at the University of Westminster, both projects are associated with that controversial area where research and creative practice meet.

From many possibilities, Pritchard chose the village of Farringdon, near Exeter, as her focus. Taking the traditional communal practice of sharing recipes as her starting point, the idea was to get local people to share ideas and experiences, and to pass on skills in ways one might expect to have been routine in pre-modern England. Thus, ‘The Recipe Exchange’ was not just about recipes. It was about the exchange of any skill or knowledge that any individual thought might be useful to others. And it was not just about the sharing of know-how. It was about the interactions and new relationships that would be formed when people began to communicate in ways perhaps now largely lost.

Project outcomes were represented, first, by a large sandwich board covered with photographs of people engaged in activities of various sorts in the village, and ‘recipes’ for things such as ‘how to draw perspective’ or ‘how to talk to people’.

Next, there were three videos: in one, a man showed a small audience how to split and re-pot plants; in the next, a woman showed a group how to spin wool; and in the last, a party of walkers inaugurated a new country path.

In another room were two iMacs showing The Recipe Exchange website. The project is now open to anyone, anywhere, to read, modify or add new ‘recipes’ to.

David Gauntlett’s argument emphasised the continuity of private creativity, and/or its rescue since a period of relative passivity caused by television. His fundamental theme and his reason for valuing creativity is that it involves the connecting of previously disparate media, interaction by the creator with others in the creative process, and then a more general engagement with others as the thing created is made available to the world at large. The continuity element starts with references to John Ruskin and William Morris; early champions of individual and hands-on creativity within an industrial society which tended towards mass production, deskilling and the alienation of people from the things they made. Gauntlett then connects the ideas of Ruskin and Morris to new possibilities presented in our time by ‘Web 2.0’: the interactive media that characterise the internet’s second phase; sites such as YouTube and Wikipedia, which rely on the self-initiated activities of individuals. Gauntlett sees this kind of activity, in which people communicate and entertain for no profit, as the equivalent of pre-modern craft-making.

Both projects, in their understated and cheerful ways, are concerned with a profoundly serious issue: how to resist the effects of globalisation and corporate domination. If the key issue in Ruskin’s and Morris’s day was mass alienation from the means of production, rapid global communications have made things far more complicated in ours. We now face questions of how individual and community identities can survive in the face of infinitely-resourced, homogenising forces, expertly designed for maximum seductive effect and motivated solely by profit, and how democratically elected governments can still operate when in thrall to international commerce.

The kind of resistance that projects such as these form a part have yet to find a clear identity, but examples are becoming increasingly visible. There have been riots recently in Bristol in opposition to the opening of yet another Tesco Express store. Elsewhere, the expansion of the Wetherspoons chain of pubs has been resisted. Sometimes the disquiet is more subtle, like the tension between judges on TV programs like X-Factor, as it dawns that although the search is ostensibly for new talent, the real but unspoken measure of success is how well the contestant fits into a pre-existing mould.

These projects ask more questions than they answer. For example, what does it mean when a village’s creativity is put onto the net to be altered by anyone? Is that a good, democratic, liberating thing, or have we lost something special? And what would a poststructuralist thinker like Baudrillard make of the likes of YouTube? Would it be seen as a cause for optimism or just another place in which simulations are further replicated? However, this is creativity-related research, and just as more established forms of research often end by identifying areas for further research, so effectively, does this.

Ends – 798 words


Reviews of Stephen Riley's book Barsteadworth College: How Workplace Bullies Get Away With It (Paperback)

August 2010

From Professor Ken Westhues of Waterloo University, Ontario:

Dear Stephen,

I've just finished reading your novel and hasten to send you a word of appreciation. I plan to write a review of it, probably along with another academic mobbing novel I've ordered but have not yet received, P. J. Vanston's Crump. I've informed Vanston of your book. You're probably aware of his book, but if not, I imagine you would find it of interest.

I'll copy this email to Gary Namie, with many thanks to him for suggesting you let me know about your novel. I can understand why he was drawn to it, because it is a hard-hitting illustration of what he and a colleague, in a deeply insightful article published this year, call "the communal character of workplace bullying" ( ). Namie's research focus and mine are a little different. Like you and lots of other people, he would describe as bullying what happened to your protagonist, Daniel Ripley. In defense of that description, your portrayal of Ripley's nemesis, Stella Jobby, for sure captures what the word bully means, and as Ripley's encounter with Bill Bulwark confirms, her rotten behaviour is not situation-specific, instead an attribute of personality that surfaced in her previous job. Still, in my view, the word mobbing is a more precise descriptor of the devastation Ripley underwent, since it was not just Jobby he was up against, but the clique or gang you capture precisely in your diagrams on pp. 74 and 157 -- a gang that is joined by the weak director of the school, Frank Fuller, and then, after Ripley files a grievance, by officers of the central administration, notably Aileen Dimley (a very believable hack) all the way up to Silas Beasley. In my view, the source of Ripley's humiliation, what eventually drove him round the bend, was no single individual, not even Jobby, but the combined weight of the collective. After all, probably the single most humiliating line inflicted on Ripley, the one about his penis needing botox, was spoken not by Jobby but by her partner in wickedness, Linda Froggatt.

Whether the process be called bullying or mobbing, you do a fantastic job of setting down in black and white what it involves. The events you chronicle crop up in case after case in my files. I especially appreciated your description of the "ritual humiliation" (I'm glad you used those words, they're right on) in the end-of-term team meeting where Jobby twists the student's complaint about her into a complaint about Ripley. The force of the event is that it is staged in front of his co-workers. It's the public nature of the shaming that gives it its power, as Froggatt knows full well when she smirks and asks, "Have you noticed how power is moving from you to us?" I served as expert witness this spring in a professor's suit against his university. That professor had been similarly bushwhacked by a surprise collective shaming at a faculty meeting. I myself had that experience long ago here at Waterloo, and chills still travel my spine when I remember it:

One little thing that struck me about Ripley's story is the point on p. 94 that all four of his main persecutors, Jobby, Froggatt, and their lackey husbands, had gone to private schools. One of my colleagues in the research on mobbing, Joan Friedenberg, has hypothesized that academics from backgrounds of modest means, nonelite parentage, are more likely to be mobbed. She has made that hypothesis on the basis of observations in the US. I suspect there's even more support for it in the UK.

There are many, many more parts of Ripley's story that resonate with the findings of my own research: mobbers' projection of their own failings onto the mobbing target, the naive target's inability to believe what is happening to him and his premature belief that the wolves have been called off, the "bullying diary" and the emails to Jobby and Fuller as means by which the target tries to keep his own head straight, a sexualized workplace (what William L. White has called "the incestuous workplace") and the breakdown of boundaries between public and private as a wellspring of mobbing episodes, the higher likelihood of mobbing in disciplines "with ambiguous standards and objectives, especially those (like music or literature) most affected by postmodern scholarship" ( ). I'll hope to expand on these points in my eventual book review.

A final (for now) word of appreciation: the account of Ripley's breakdown on pp. 194ff is painfully well done. To write so poignant and truthful a depiction of the deep pit of psychiatric injury, one has to have been there. Thank you for writing it. As soon as I finish this email, I plan to send an email to a professor in the US who has been writing to me for months about his experience of ongoing humiliation in his school, and his deteriorating emotional state. I'm going to suggest to him that he get hold of your book pronto and take it to heart. I'm pretty sure he's going to be deeply grateful that you set your story down in black and white. Your novel may help him escape what happened to Ripley.

Finally, let me say I googled your name and found the website of your art. If I complimented you on all those circles, it wouldn't mean anything, because with respect to art, I'm really dumb. Even so, I'm wishing you much success in your work. Many years ago, I interviewed a famous Newfoundland artist named Christopher Pratt. He told me that after he finished his schooling in art, I think it was at Glasgow, he returned to St. John's and took a job teaching art in the university there. He was assigned a Tuesday night class that first term. At the first meeting he undertook to ask the students why they had enrolled in the course. One lady answered, "My husband bowls on Tuesday nights and I didn't have anything else to do." Pratt was so dismayed, so he told me, that he fled to his parents' cottage in rural Newfoundland (elite parentage, of course) and abandoned his teaching career then and there. I hope that now that you're free of academic nonsense and pointlessness, your success as an artist will in due course be a match for Pratt's.

Thanks and kind regards to you, as also to Gary Namie,

Ken Westhues

Kenneth Westhues
Professor of Sociology
University of Waterloo
Waterloo, Ontario N2L3G1 Canada
519.888.4567, ext 33660


By M G Willock (Manchester, England)

July 2010

Published on Amazon: see 'Links'

'Workplace Bullies' - was not a very appealing title and the cover didn't make me rush to read it. But once I opened the pages and started to get to know Dan I couldn't put it down. It was funny, shocking, interesting and frightening to think that prolonged bullying can happen to intelligent, strong, confident and articulate people, and others would sit back and allow this to happen. This is a good book to read, and in addition should be read by anyone who works in HR for a lesson of how not to behave. But above all a very enjoyable read.

Rating (out of 5 stars) 5 stars


"Shine Through All the Spheres" Nolia’s Gallery, Great Suffolk St., London, SE1 - Winter 2006

Review by Melody Austin:
Published in 'A-N Magazine - Reviews Unedited'

Within ‘Shine Through All the Spheres’, Stephen Riley experiments and plays with material and matter. This body of recent paintings explore the notion of both limitation and liberation. All of these works employ the static symbol of a circle as a vessel for the abstract and figurative. His technique is both mediated and random, relying on the reaction of the materials to create a form of alchemical imagery. The tactile nature in many of his works erupts from the canvas in places and has an immediacy and sensuality in texture. Riley’s paintings are hybrid and fecund, his use of a glowing lava stream of colour is intensely visually seductive. The paintings are reminiscent of landscapes of earthly, alien and even microbiological nature. There is a restlessness and vitality, to the process, he explores the subtleties of surface and depth, dripping, dragging and investigating, questioning and experimenting, exploring his own inner cosmology. Through exploiting the volatility of paint, his works are immediate, of the moment, a record of motion, colour poured onto canvas, to settle, congeal and react.

I entered the gallery on a bleak evening and was struck by the intensity of colours, abundant, vibrant and overblown. The paintings have a crystalline brilliance, a glow that suggests an opulence and mysticism. His spheres almost appear to float, the luminosity of the colours create an atmospheric sublime almost seeming to point towards the sky.

Riley’s resolution to utilize the archetype of the circle suggests Mandalas, the eastern symbol employed as kind of self-protection intended to guard against the outside world from entering into the inner psychic space. The magic circle as a charm is an archaic emblem still found in folklore used as a means of objectification of unconscious images. Riley places self-imposed boundaries through his choice of format, a square constraining a circle. This has parallels with Jungian theory the square representational of earth and the circle is attributed to the spirit – a union of opposites. This powerful minimal geometry acts as his personal gateway.

Predominately, Riley’s paintings are abstract, but within the body of work he has included imagery, figurative and representational, which read as ciphers, they subvert and make one question their significance but still form part of the solution to a strategy for which the outcomes are unpredictable. He employs an almost divinatory process which allows the circle to be reinvented again and again.

Melody Austin
Director of The Art Works Studios and Gallery


Comments on:
"Shine Through All the Spheres"Winter 2006

“As ever, thought-provoking and fundamentally humane” – Dr Iain Wilkinson; University of Kent - sociologist and award-winning author.

“Fantastic works” – Alex Komori

“A great achievement…palpably pulsating!” – Paul Finnegan; sculptor and academic.

“Look forward to seeing more. Best exhibition this year anywhere!” – no name provided (sadly!)

“Great beginning and no end” – Gail Olding; artist and lecturer.

“Amazing paintings…you should be charging far more for them!” – Catherine Regler; international fashion designer.


Stephen Riley
Contemporary Fine Art
Abstract Painting